06 October 2013

A day in churches and castles in Kilkenny,
and a night in a restored Tudor-era tavern

The arches of the bridge at Goresbridge reflected in the waters of the River Barrow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

The feeling of a lingering late summer continued yesterday [Saturday 5 October 2013]. Although I still have to get to grips with my new phone, it told me that the temperature in south-east Ireland was the same as Athens all day – somewhere between 17 and 21.

Four of us decided not to squander this blessing and gift, and spent the day in Co Kilkenny, visiting Goresbridge, Gowran and Kilkenny City – and ending the day with a visit to one of the most eccentric and unusual bars in Ireland.

Our first stop was at Goresbridge on the banks of the River Barrow, on the borders of Co Carlow and Co Kilkenny.

In Church History, Goresbirdge is known as Grange Sylvae, and, unlike many parishes in Co Kilkenny, it is part of the Diocese of Leighlin rather than the Diocese of Ossory. Indeed, the two most interesting architectural sights in Goresbridge are the bridge that gives the village its name, and Saint George’s Church of Ireland parish church, which retains the old name of Grange Sylvae.

The village takes its name from the new bridge built by Ralph Gore. The arable lands in the parish of Grange Silvae were granted to Arthur Gore by King Charles II. In the wake of the Williamite wars around 1700, the Gore family acquired land in the townland of Barrowmount, on which most of the village of Goresbridge stands today.

Some accounts identify Ralph Gore who built the bridge with General Ralph Gore (1725-1802) the first and last Earl of Ross, but I wonder whether it was built, instead, by Colonel Ralph Gore, who lived here at Barrowmount, and was MP for Co Kilkenny.

This elegant nine-arch rubble stone bridge was built over the River Barrow in 1756. This is an attractive landmark and it is an important example of mid-18th century engineering. The bridge is best known for the panoramic views from the river banks of the series of nine round arches with their granite ashlar voussoirs, and squared rubble stone soffits. The random rubble stone walls on granite ashlar piers have triangular cut-waters.

We climbed down a flight of 10 cut-stone steps on the north-east side of the bridge, leading down to the grassy banks to river, and walked along the east bank, where an arch forms a pedestrian underpass by an old abandoned mill.

The sleepy village of Goresbridge was a prosperous trading town in the 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Goresbridge quickly became a market and postal town. Transport infrastructure was improved with the completion of the Barrow Navigation on 1794 and its incorporation into the Grand Canal system, providing opportunities for trade and encouraging the growth of industry. For much of the 18th and 19th centuries, the nine-arch bridge formed a vital link between Co Carlow and Co Kilkenny.

The significance of the bridge as a strategic crossing point was central to the events on the morning of 23 June 1798, known since as the Battle of Goresbridge. As they planned to march through Goresbridge, the Wexford Insurgents were met by members of the Wexford Militia, who were billeted locally. While trying to defend the bridge and prevent the rebels crossing the river, the cavalry were defeated, 28 soldiers were captured and the survivors fled to Kilkenny

By the early part of the 19h century, Goresbridge had a thriving economy, with a weekly market and four fairs a year on the Fair Green. During this time, the roads were gravelled and new Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic churches were built, and they remain the two most prominent buildings in the town. In 1853, the Brigidine nuns built a convent at the end of Barrack Street.

But the population and economy began to decline. By 1884, the weekly market had ceased, the population fell from 634 in 1837 to a 365 by 1885.

Saint George’s Church stands on a grassy embankment north of Goresbridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

From the convent, we continued walking north along a winding country road to the Church of Ireland parish church of Grange Silvae or Saint George’s.

Although the church is a short distance north of the village, it has a certain prominence above the landscape, perched on an embankment or grassy elevated site, where the well-kept graveyard is bounded by a stone wall with an iron-gate and stile.

Saint George’s was built with a typical Gothic Revival design. A survey in 1814 refers to an impressive steeple designed by Sir Francis Johnson. However, it appears the steeple was never built. Instead, the church, like many of churches of the time, was built with a three-staged entrance tower, with decorative granite elements to the string courses, and surmounted by finely-carved pinnacles. The nave of the church is lit by Gothic-style lancet windows, some of which have been blocked up, sadly.

A mural burial slab commemorating Arthur Gore of Barrowmount, who died in 1721, was moved to the site when the church at Powerstown fell into disuse.

Saint Mary’s Collegiate Church in Gowran dates from the 13th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

From Goresbridge, we drove on to nearby Gowran, which was once an important town and borough, but is now a sleepy village. Gowran, which was once the residence of the Kings of Ossory, retained its importance after the Norman invasion.

Robert the Bruce with his army of Scots and Ulster gallowglasses and mercenaries, captured and burned the town in 1316.

James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormonde, built Gowran Castle in 1385 close to the site of the present castle and the town walls were built around 1415. King James I gave Gowran a charter in 1608, making it a borough that elected two MPs to the Irish House of Commons.

The most interesting building in Gowran is Saint Mary’s Collegiate Church, which was built in the late 13th century on the site of an earlier monastery and continues to serve as the Church of Ireland parish church.

Saint Mary’s is both a parish church and national monument (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The collegiate church, served by a college of priests, was a large and elaborate building, with an aisled nave, a long chancel and a tower at the crossing. The tower and chancel now form the parish church, while the rest of Saint Mary’s is now a National Monument.

The burials in the church include James Butler, who became 1st Earl of Ormonde in 1328, and his wife Lady Eleanor de Bohun, granddaughter of King Edward I. But the tower was locked, and were unable to see their monuments.

Butler House ... once the Dower House of Kilkenny Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

However, the Butler theme continued, for we drove from Gowran to Kilkenny, where our first stop was Butler House, once the Dower House of Kilkenny Castle.

Lady Eleanor Butler lived here after the death of her husband Walter Butler in 1783. She was the mother of John Butler, the 17th Earl of Ormonde, and her daughter, also Eleanor, was one of the famous “Ladies of Llangollen.” James Butler, Earl of Ormonde, lived in the house while Kilkenny Castle was under being rebuilt in 1831.

During the cholera epidemic of 1832, a soup kitchen was run from here, and the society that later became the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland held its meetings in Butler House in the 1870s.

Butler House was in restored 1972 by Kilkenny Design, the state design agency. In 1989, the Kilkenny Civic Trust acquired both Butler House and the Castle Stables. Sweeping staircases, magnificent plastered ceilings, marble fireplaces and a charming walled garden are among the features of this Georgian residence.

The house then opened to the public as a guesthouse and conference centre. In 2000, the Kilkenny Civic Trust had the gardens landscaped, returning them to their original splendour.

7164 Kilkenny Castle, home of the Ormonde Butlers for centuries, dominates the streetscape of Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

We strolled back through the walled gardens to the Kilkenny Design Centre, which is housed in the stables and coach houses between Butler House and Kilkenny Castle. There we had lunch, before crossing the Parade for a visit to Kilkenny Castle.

Two of my favourite architectural features in Ireland are the Picture Gallery in Kilkenny Castle and the ‘Moorish Staircase.’

The Picture Gallery Wing was built during the early 19th-century building programme carried out by the William Robertson, and was built on earlier foundations. Robertson’s Picture Gallery was in castellated baronial style, in keeping with his work on the rest of the castle. Initially the gallery was built with a flat roof, but this began to cause problems shortly after its completion.

The distinguished architects, Sir Thomas Newenham Deane (1827-1899) and Benjamin Woodward (1816-1861), were called in during the 1860s to make changes to the overall design of the Picture Gallery block, and other corrections to Robertson’s work. Their changes included inserting four oriels in the west wall and blocking up eight existing windows, while adding another oriel was to the east wall. A pitched roof was put in place, with central glazing.

The hammer-beam roof structure is worth as much attention as many of the paintings hanging in the gallery. This roof is supported on carved stone corbels by the stone carver Charles William Harrison (1835-1903).

The ceiling was decorated by John Hungerford Pollen (1820-1902), then Professor of Fine Arts at Newman College, Dublin, using a combination of motifs ranging from the quasi-mediaeval to the pre-Raphaelite, with interlace, gilded animal and birds’ heads on the cross beams. This decorative scheme was criticised in The Irish Builder, where it was described as “a roof probably intended to be Byzantine but is merely bizarre.”

The staircase, based on “Moorish” design, was designed by the Deane and Woodward to provide access to the Picture Gallery and to provide another major staircase in the circulation of a castle with an awkward shape. It is a rising half-turn stairs around a square sky-lit well. The stone carver Harrison carved the naturalistic foliage and the small animal details that decorate the stairs.

Deane and Woodward worked in a Gothic style that was influenced by the principles of John Ruskin. Their works include the Museum Building in Trinity College, Dublin, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, the Pitt Rivers Museum, and the Kildare Street Club in Dublin. Deane also worked on the conservation of Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny.

From the castle, we walked back down The Parade, where a Gospel choir was performing for a gathering that included bishops and the mayor, and into Rose Inn Street to see the late 16th century Shee’s Alms House.

The state of the Shee monuments in Saint Mary’s churchyard is a public disgrace and should embarrass and shame the city authorities (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

We walked on trough to the churchyard behind Saint Mary’s Church, where the late mediaeval graves and renaissance sepulchral monuments of the Shee family are still in a disgraceful state. This churchyard is in the care of Kilkenny Corporation, yet despite years of strong complaints and protests, these monuments continue to be vandalised and to be daubed in wanton graffiti.

The graves and monuments are a unique collection in Ireland, and their neglect should be matter of shame and embarrassment for the city officials. The neglect itself is a form of vandalism I cannot understand why this has continued. Any other European city would be proud of this unique collection and its place in civic heritage, linking today’s Kilkenny with the ruling mercantile families of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Saint Canice’s Cathedral and Round Tower in the bright light of the late afternoon ... Saint Canice’s Day is 11 October (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

We strolled on down High Street, stopping to look at the Butter Slip and the Market Slip and the modern sculpture of Saint Cainneach (feast day 11 October), who gives his name to Saint Canice’s Cathedral. In Parliament Street, we looked at Rothe House, the site of the Parliamentary Assembly of the 1650s, and Saint Francis’s Abbey at Smithwick’s Brewery.

In Irishtown, we climbed the steps and looked at Saint Canice’s Cathedral and the round tower. By now it was late evening, and most of the major sites were closed. And so we made our way back into the heart of this mediaeval city to look for the Hole in the Wall on High Street, which should have been open all day.

The one last late mediaeval site I had planned to visit as part of our tour was closed, and we retired to Café Sol for dinner.

The Hole in the Wall ... an eccentric refurbishment of an Elizabethan townhouse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

We were about to head back to the car park, when we saw that the Hole in the Wall was open. This eccentric pub is housed in one of the oldest surviving townhouses in Ireland.

The Archer Inner House behind 17 High Street was built in 1582. This Elizabethan building, with its tavern, snug and Archer room has been fully restored over the last 10 years by Michael Conway, who has opened it to the public for the first time in hundreds of years.

The Hole in the Wall is the inner house of a Tudor mansion built in 1582 by Martin Archer, a future Mayor of Kilkenny. The family lost everything in 1654 with the Cromwellian confiscations, and the Archer complex became part of the Ormonde estate after 1660.

The High Street mansion was let independently from the inner house and an 18th century tenant of the inner house was Judith Madden, mother of Edmund Madden who married Jane Comerford in nearby Saint Mary’s Church in 1781. In the late 1700s, the Hole in the Wall was frequented by people such as the Earl of Ormonde, Henry Grattan, Sir Jonah Barrington, and the future Duke of Wellington.
The Hole in Wall has been undergoing conservation and restoration since 1999. The building is typically Tudor in style, with a tall pitched roof, cut-stone hooded Elizabethan mullioned windows, original flagstones, hexagonal chimney and oak doors.

The ground floor is divided into a rustic tavern made from 1582 oak beams, floor boards and other original oaks. Outside, there is a moderate sized enclosed New Orleans-style courtyard.

Michael Conway regaled us for hours about his work and with his own interpretation of Kilkenny history and Irish history, and we left Kilkenny hours later than we had planned.

It was a dark night as we drove back to Dublin. But the night sky was filled with bright stars, and the view was so clear this could truly have been a summer’s night.

Outside the Hole in the Wall in the late evening darkness (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Four cathedrals and a missed
opportunity for mission in Italy

Everyone wants to squeeze into the Piazzetta in Capri town, which is crowded by day and by night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

The Piazzetta, in the heart of Capri town, is crowded by day and by night, with available space packed. The square buzzes with life, as the café tables fill what is officially known as Piazza Umberto I, and tourists crane their necks, hoping to catch a glimpse of preening glitterati and glamorous celebrities who can afford to holiday here while day trippers return to the resorts before evening falls.

I Faraglioni ... Capri’s striking offshore rock stacks that soar out of the sea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Everyone who comes to Capri wants to see I Faraglioni, the striking offshore rock stacks that soar out of the sea, and the Blue Grotto or Grotta Azzurra. Others want to see the Villa San Michelle, the home of Sweden’s best-known writer Axel Munthe, the site of the Villa Jovis, the luxurious home of the decadent Emperor Tiberius, and the Giardini di Augusto, once owned by the German industrialist Krupp. And some come to see the villa that inspired Gracie Fields lived as she sang On the Isle of Capri.

Everyone who comes to Capri seems to end up in the Piazzetta, enjoying the blue sea below or simple “people watching.”

The best views of the square – and of other people – are from the top of the flight of steps leading up to Santo Stefano, Capri’s former cathedral, built in the square in the 17th century, on the site of a sixth century Benedictine monastery. The church was built in Capri’s flamboyant baroque style, with small cupolas, vaulted ceilings and molded chapels. The cathedral clock tower and the archbishop’s palace nearby are now used as the Municipio or town hall.

Around the corner from the square, the façade of Santo Stefano is squeezed into a narrow side street. Inside, the inlaid marble floor surrounding the main altar includes fragments from the Villa Jovis, and the treasures include a silver statue of San Costanzo, the island’s patron.

But few tourists get to see inside the former cathedral. Outside, a sign warns people against sitting on the steps, and the church opens in the evening only. By then, the last day-trippers have caught the hydrofoils and ferries back to Sorrento and Naples, leaving behind only the rich and the famous who can afford the high prices of Capri’s hotels.

Peace and calm in the gardens of the Villa San Michele (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

It seems the church in Capri is missing a great opportunity for welcome and mission. Instead, we communed with nature in the gardens of the Villa San Michele, and said our prayers in the chapel in a small cemetery in Anacapri on the corner of Via Cimitero and Via Caproscuro.

The grave of Major John Hamill from Co Antrim in Anacapri (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In a quiet corner of the Cimitero acattolico di Capri – literally “the non-Catholic Cemetery of Capri” – we came across the grave of Major John Hamill from Co Antrim, who was killed on 4 October 1808 while fighting with the British garrison resisting Napoleon’s invasion of Capri. The first plaque was placed on his grave by his kinsman, John Hamill, on 3 October 1831, and the grave was restored in 1914, after an appeal in The Irish Times, by the military historian and philanthropist Sir Lees Knowles, who was also involved in the Guinness Housing Trust.

Ravello’s pair of pulpits

Ravello is known for its beautiful views of the coast below (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

If we were disappointed by the closed doors of Santo Stefano, we found warmer and heartier welcomes in three other cathedrals during our week in the Sorrento and Amalfi area: the cathedrals in Ravello, Amalfi and Sorrento.

Tiny Ravello (population 2,500) is known for its beautiful views of the coast below, for the Ravello Festival and for the Villa Rufolo, built in 1270, and its gardens. Boccaccio mentions the villa in his Decameron and it inspired Wagner’s stage design for his opera Parsifal (1880).

Preparing the cathedral in Ravello for a wedding (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

But visitors often miss out on Ravello’s much older Duomo or cathedral on the other side of the square, built in 1080. The entrance to the cathedral has two bronze doors depicting 54 scenes of the life and Passion of Christ. These bronze doors are one of only two dozen pairs of bronze doors in Italy.

Although the cathedral was being prepared that afternoon for a wedding, we were welcomed inside, entering through the museum on side street on the north side of the cathedral.

The ‘Gospel Pulpit’ in Ravello is supported by six roaring lions (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Inside, the cathedral’s richly ornamented interior is a riot of sculpted white marble, which holds a third century sarcophagus, marble slabs decorated with mosaics, and the skull of Saint Barbara. Behind the altar, there is a vial that is said to hold the blood of Saint Pantaleone, the town’s patron saint, and a fragment of the Saint Thomas placed in the side of the Risen Christ.

But the gems in the cathedral are the two 13th century, decorated, marble pulpits in the central nave, adorned with glittering mosaics: the Gospel Pulpit on the right of the central nave, and the Epistle Pulpit on the left.

The ‘Epistle Pulpit’ in Ravello tells the story of Jonah and the Whale (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The Gospel Pulpit, dating from 1272, displays dragons and birds on spiral columns, supported by six roaring lions, and the heraldic arms of the Rufolo family who built the Villa Rufolo, with profiles of family members above the doors of the pulpit. The Epistle Pulpit depicts the story of Jonah and the Whale.

Wedding bells in Amalfi

Behind Amalfi’s lively seafront is an attractive small town with narrow alleyways and hidden courtyards (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Earlier that day, down on the coast below Ravello, we visited Amalfi, once an independent Byzantine republic, then from 839 to 1135, one of Italy’s four great maritime republics with a fleet to rival the naval powers of Pisa, Genoa and Venice. Later, it was the Knights of Saint John were founded here. Today it has a lively seafront but it is an attractive small town, with narrow alleyways, hidden courtyards and a population of 5,500 – before the tourists and day-trippers arrive in the morning, or once they have left in the evening.

Amalfi also claims to be the home of Flavio Gioia, an imaginary 14th century mariner and inventor who never existed but who, nevertheless, is said to have perfected the compass and to have determined the direction of true north.

The Cloister of Paradise is enclosed by rows and colonnades of Moorish-style, white, slender, interlaced columns (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

A few steps north of the statue of Flavio Gioia on the seafront, the town’s main square, Piazza Duomo, is dominated by Amalfi’s Duomo or cathedral which stands over the town centre at the top of a steep flight of steps.

At the top of the steps, this cathedral also has an impressive pair of bronze doors, dating from 1066, but originally from Constantinople.

But the cathedral in Amalfi is, in fact, a pair of cathedrals: the Duomo di Sant’Adrea (Cathedral of Saint Andrew) and the older Duomo del Crocifisso (Cathedral of the Crucifixion). Beside the paired cathedrals is the Chiostro del Paradiso or Cloister of Paradise, and below the crypt with relics of the Apostle Andrew.

Once again, although the cathedral was preparing for a wedding, I was welcomed and allowed to enter through the Cloister of Paradise. This was once ancient cemetery of the nobility of Amalfi, and is enclosed by rows and colonnades of 120 Moorish-style, white, slender, interlaced columns erected in 1266.

The cathedral dates from 596, but the original cathedral now serves as a museum. The newer cathedral, built in 1100, was originally in Romanesque style, concealed by the sumptuous baroque reordering of the 18th century.

The shrine of Saint Andrew in the crypt in Amalfi’s cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In the crypt below, the cathedral claims its greatest relic – the head and bones of Saint Andrew, the first Apostle. During the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the head and bones were removed from a church in Constantinople by the papal envoy, Cardinal Pietro Capuano, and were buried in the crypt in Amalfi in 1208.

To this day, a crystal phial is placed on top of the sepulcher on some days in the church calendar for the past 750 years, and a dense liquid is collected. But similar sepulchers and similar miracles are claimed in Rome and in Patras in Greece. The “miracle of the phial” overshadows the other treasures of the crypt, including statues by Michelangelo and Bernini.

The atrium in Amalfi is built of striped marble and stone in a mixture of Spanish baroque, Moorish-Arabesque and Italian Gothic styles (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

As the wedding was about to begin, I stepped out into the extravagant atrium, built of striped marble and stone in a mixture of Spanish baroque, Moorish-Arabesque and Italian Gothic styles, with open interlaced arches. Below me spread the delights of Amalfi as the clock in the campanile above chimed mid-day. The bride had arrived to applause from tourists and shopkeepers and was climbing the 62 steps covered with a long red carpet to.

Sorrento’s cathedral and cloisters

The cathedral in Sorrento is used by local Anglicans on Sunday afternoons (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The fourth cathedral we visited was the Cattedrale dei Santi Filippo e Giacomo (Cathedral of Saint Philip and Saint James) in Sorrento (16,500 people). It is used at 5 p.m. on Sunday afternoons by the local Anglican community, which is linked with Saint Mark’s Church in Naples, as well as Bari and Capri.

Although it was the height of summer, the parish was between incumbents, the parish website was down, and there was no Anglican service that afternoon. But we were not disappointed.

The Nativity scene inside the main doors of Sorrento’s cathedral is on display all year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Yet again, this cathedral, which stands halfway along the Corso Italia in the heart of the town, has 12th century doors from Constantinople. It was first built in the 11th century was rebuilt in the Romanesque style in the 15th century, and has a marble altar, pulpit and throne dating from the 16th century. It seems as it is forever Christmas in this cathedral, for the large presepio just inside the main doors is on display all year.

The Franciscan Cloisters, beside the Villa Comunale in Sorrento (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Away from the buzz of Piazza Tasso and tourist attractions of the Marina Grande and Marina Piccola, once again we found peace and quiet the shady gardens of the Villa Comunale and the 13th century cloisters next door to the Franciscan church, shortly before yet another wedding ceremony began.

Offering a warm welcome

The closed doors and the cold reception at Santo Stephano in Capri reminded me of a similar experience many years ago in Santorini, where I was stunned into silence as I watched a priest brush tourists off the steps of the church as they watched the setting sun. He had missed an opportunity for mission once again. With a little imagination, he could have affirmed their joy in God’s creation, and invited them in to pray and see the church once the sun had set.

Both experiences were in sharp contrast to the open doors we experienced in other three small towns, and with the liturgical and cultural vitality we experienced later this summer in Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin, and Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny.

In those two Irish cathedrals, the dean and the community know visitors are neither a nuisance nor an easy source of income through entry charges. Cathedrals and their liturgical and cultural life are at the heart of the ministry and the mission of the church; otherwise, they are in danger of being irrelevant to the life of the world around us.

A secret garden with a decorative majolica wall in the courtyard of the Casa Grande Correale, the 18th century Correale Mansion, in Sorrento (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay and these photographs were first published in October 2013 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).

Planting in our hearts the seeds of
reverence for all that God gives us

‘World’s Smallest Seed,’ 40”x30” oil/canvas, by James B. Janknegt

Patrick Comerford

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin,

Sunday 6 October 2013,

11 a.m.: Cathedral Eucharist, Harvest Thanksgiving

Habakkuk 1: 1-4, 2: 1-4; Psalm 37: 1-9; II Timothy 1: 1-14; Luke 17: 5-10.

May I speak to you in the name + of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

I think it’s safe to say, I do not have green fingers.

Until recently, I had no interest in the garden. I like sitting in the garden, reading in the sunshine, listening to the sound of the small fountain, enjoying the shade of the trees, and in summertime, eating out in the open.

So, it’s not that I don’t enjoy the garden; it’s just that I have always felt I would be no good at it.

It’s an attitude that may have been nurtured and cultured from heavy hay-fever in early childhood, and hay-fever that comes back to haunt me persistently at the beginning of summer.

We once bought a willow tree, put it in the back of the car, and drove back across the city, with me holding on to it, in a small Mini in the early 1980s. By the time we got home, I was covered in rashes, and my eyes, ears and nose were in a deep state of irritation.

So, just for that reason alone, you could not call me a “tree hugger.” But don’t get me wrong … I really do like trees.

I spent some time this summer in the vast, expansive olive groves that stretch for miles and miles up along the mountainsides in Crete, and last year in a vineyard in Italy where the olive groves protect the vines.

But I can’t be trusted with trees. I was given a present of a miniature orange tree … and it died within weeks. I have been given presents of not one, but two olive trees. One, sadly, died. The other is still growing, but it’s a tiny little thing.

Perhaps if I had just a little faith in my ability to help trees to grow, they would survive and mature.

Olive groves in Crete … why did Jesus talk about mustard plants and mulberry trees and not about olive trees? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

You may wonder this morning why Jesus had decided to talk about a mustard seed and a mulberry tree, rather than, say, an olive tree. After all, as he was talking, he must have been surrounded by grove after grove of olive trees.

But, I can imagine, Jesus is watching to see if those who are listening have switched off their humour mode, had withdrawn their sense of humour. He is talking here with a great sense of humour. He is using hyperbole to underline his point.

We all know a tiny grain of mustard is incapable of growing to a big tree. So what Is Jesus talking about here? Because, he not only caught the disciples off-guard with his hyperbole and sense of humour … he even wrong-footed some of the Reformers and many Bible translators.

So, what sort of trees are referred to in this morning’s reading?

Why did Jesus refer to a mustard seed and a mulberry or sycamine tree, and not, say, an oak tree or an olive tree?

Jesus first uses the example of a tiny, miniscule kernel or seed (κόκκος, kokkos), from which the small mustard plant (σίναπι, sinapi) grows. But mustard is an herb, not a tree. Not much of a miracle, you might say, tiny seed, tiny plant.

But he then mixes his metaphors and refers to another plant. Martin Luther, in his translation of the Bible, turned the tree in verse 6 into a mulberry tree. The mulberry tree – both the black mulberry and the white mulberry – is from the same family as the fig tree.

As small children, perhaps, some of us sang or played to the nursery rhyme or song, Here we go round the mulberry bush. Another version is Here we go gathering nuts in May. The same tune is used for the American rhyme Pop goes the weasel and for the Epiphany carol, I saw three ships.

TS Eliot uses the nursery rhyme in his poem The Hollow Men, replacing the mulberry bush with a prickly pear and “on a cold and frosty morning” with “at five o’clock in the morning.”

Of course, mulberries do not grow on bushes, and they do not grow nuts that are gathered in May. Nor is the mulberry a very tall tree – it grows from tiny seeds but only reaches the height of an adult person.

It’s not a very big tree at all; it’s more like a bush than a tree – and easy to uproot too.

However, the tree Jesus names (Greek συκάμινος, sikámeenos) is the sycamine tree, which has the shape and leaves of a mulberry tree but fruit that tastes like the fig, or the sycamore fig (συκόμορος, Ficus Sycomorus).

We shall come across this tree again in a few weeks’ time in the Gospel reading on 3 November (the Fourth Sunday before Advent). There it is a big tree and little Zacchaeus the tax collector in Jericho climbs it in order to see Jesus (see Luke 19: 4).

The sycamine tree is not naturally pollinated. The pollination process is initiated only when a wasp sticks its stinger right into the heart of the fruit. In other words, the tree and its fruit have to be stung in order to reproduce. There is a direct connection between suffering and growth, but also a lesson that everything in creation, including the wasp, has its place in the intricate balance of nature.

Whether it is a small seed like the mustard seed, a small, seemingly useless and annoying creature like the wasp, or a small and despised figure of fun like Zacchaeus, each has value in God’s eyes, each has a role in the great harvest of gathering in for God’s Kingdom.

Put more simply, it is quality and not quantity that matters.

Pay attention to the quality of our faith, our commitment, our hope, our love, and you will be surprised by the results.

Perhaps I should be paying more attention to that small olive tree on my patio.

Faith in God is powerful enough to face all our fears and all impossibilities. Even if our germ of faith is tiny, if it is genuine there can be real growth beyond what we can see in ourselves, beyond what others can see in us.

A small example of this is the link between this Cathedral and the Mendicity Institution, just a short distance west of the cathedral.

On Sunday afternoons, a small outreach group from this cathedral is involved in the kitchen there. Those who are fed come with needs created by many causes made worse by the present economic climate: homeless immigrants who have lost their jobs since the Celtic Tiger got pneumonia and died; young couples, embarrassed they can no longer adequately feed their tiny children; victims of drug abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, discrimination or vindictive landlords.

Nobody asks why anyone comes there for soup, sandwiches and succour. Nobody embarrasses them further or shames them. But the programme has moved on from feeding, to (for example) trying to help some people return home, others recover some personal dignity through the recognition of their humanity and their needs that restores their hope.

Since last year, a Polish charity, Barka, has been working from the premises on Island Street, helping homeless and destitute East European migrant workers.

The present economic climate has created a new phenomenon of the working poor. It could be, it may be, you or me, for many of us are only one pay cheque away from poverty. If the banks continue with their present strategies, urged on by government and the Central Bank, more mortgages will be called in, and more families will be made homeless, without a safety net to catch them.

Those of us who think we are still many steps away from that abyss still need to pray fervently in the words of our Harvest Post-Communion Prayer this morning that we may have planted in our hearts the seeds of reverence for all that God gives us so that we may become wise stewards of the good things we enjoy.

The Mendicity Institution was founded almost 200 years ago, in 1818, by people from this cathedral congregation who knew they were blessed yet only stewards of what they had. They worked with a tiny, little seed of faith, hope and love and over the past two centuries it has grown into a mighty tree. Instead of working itself out of existence through society becoming more enlightened and more prosperous, its work has never been so important, never so needed, than it is today.

The bidding prayer for peace this morning tells us that the harvest of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (see Galatians 5: 2, 24).

None of the work in the Menidicity Institution is done for profit, none of this is in pursuit of the sort of growth that we pursued when the Celtic Tiger stalked and haunted this land. The only growth that is sought is growth in Faith, growth in Hope, growth in Love.

And the greatest of these is Love. And it is in the growth that we find the seeds of hope for the growth of the Kingdom of God.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Harvest Festival Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on Sunday 6 October 2013.

Luke 17: 5-10

5 Καὶ εἶπαν οἱ ἀπόστολοι τῷ κυρίῳ, Πρόσθες ἡμῖν πίστιν. 6 εἶπεν δὲ ὁ κύριος, Εἰ ἔχετε πίστιν ὡς κόκκον σινάπεως, ἐλέγετε ἂν τῇ συκαμίνῳ [ταύτῃ], Ἐκριζώθητι καὶ φυτεύθητι ἐν τῇ θαλάσσῃ: καὶ ὑπήκουσεν ἂν ὑμῖν.

7 Τίς δὲ ἐξ ὑμῶν δοῦλον ἔχων ἀροτριῶντα ἢ ποιμαίνοντα, ὃς εἰσελθόντι ἐκ τοῦ ἀγροῦ ἐρεῖ αὐτῷ, Εὐθέως παρελθὼν ἀνάπεσε, 8 ἀλλ' οὐχὶ ἐρεῖ αὐτῷ, Ἑτοίμασον τί δειπνήσω, καὶ περιζωσάμενος διακόνει μοι ἕως φάγω καὶ πίω, καὶ μετὰ ταῦτα φάγεσαι καὶ πίεσαι σύ; 9 μὴ ἔχει χάριν τῷ δούλῳ ὅτι ἐποίησεν τὰ διαταχθέντα; 10 οὕτως καὶ ὑμεῖς, ὅταν ποιήσητε πάντα τὰ διαταχθέντα ὑμῖν, λέγετε ὅτι Δοῦλοι ἀχρεῖοί ἐσμεν, ὃ ὠφείλομεν ποιῆσαι πεποιήκαμεν.

5 The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ 6 The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would obey you.

7 ‘Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? 8 Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”.’

A Collect for Harvest Thanksgiving:

Eternal God,
you crown the year with your goodness
and give us the fruits of the earth in their season:
grant that we may use them to your glory,
for the relief of those in need
and for our own well-being;
through Jesus Christ our
Lord. Amen.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord of the harvest,
with joy we have offered our thanksgiving for your love shown in creation
and have shared in the bread and the wine of the kingdom:
By your grace plant within us such reverence
for all that you give us
that will make us wise stewards of the good things we enjoy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Preaching at the Harvest Thanksgiving
Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral

Christ Church Cathedral Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

I am preaching this morning [Sunday 6 October 2013] at the Cathedral Harvest Thanksgiving Service in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. The celebrant is the Precentor, the Revd Canon Peter Campion.

The readings are: Habakkuk 1: 1-4; 2: 1-4; Psalm 37: 1–9; 2 Timothy 1: 1-14; Luke 17: 5-10.

The setting is Missa Brevis S. Johannis de Deo by Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809), sung by the Cathedral Choir.

The Processional Hymn is ‘Come, ye thankful people, come,’ by Henry Alford (1810-1871), based on Matthew 13: 37–43. The Offertory Hymn is ‘Lord of beauty, thine the splendour,’ by Cyril A. Alington (1872-1955); the Communion Hymn is ‘Bread of heaven,’ by Josiah Conder (1789-1855); and the Post-communion Hymn is ‘We plough the fields, and scatter,’ by Matthias Claudius (1740-1815) , translated by Jane M. Campbell (1817-1878).

The Communion Mote is also by Hayden:

The Heavens are telling the glory of God,
The wonder of his work displays the firmament.

Today that is coming speaks it the day,
The night that is gone to following night.
The Heavens are telling the glory of God,
The wonder of his work displays the firmament.

In all the lands resounds the word,
Never unperceived, ever understood.
The Heavens are telling the glory of God,
The wonder of his work displays the firmament.

The modern tradition of celebrating the Harvest Festival in churches began 170 years ago on 1 October 1843, when an Anglican priest, the Revd Robert Hawker (1803-1875) invited his parishioners to a special thanksgiving service in Morwenstow Parish Church, Cornwall.

Well-known Victorian hymns, including ‘We plough the fields and scatter,’ ‘Come ye thankful people, come’ and ‘All things bright and beautiful,’ helped to popularise his idea of a harvest thanksgiving service and to spread the annual custom of decorating churches with home-grown produce.

But the person who helped to have the Harvest Thanksgiving introduced to Anglican calendar was, perhaps, the Revd Piers Claughton (1811-1884), when he was Vicar of Elton in Huntingdonshire in 1854. He later became Bishop of St Helena and then of Colombo, and later Archdeacon of London.

Increasingly, churches have linked harvest with an awareness of and concern for the impoverished and for people in the developing world for whom growing crops of sufficient quality and quantity remains a struggle. This morning in my sermon I hope to mention the work of the outreach programme from Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, at the Mendicity Institute.